Tuesday, August 20, 2013

8 things I emphasize in game design lessons

I love games, I make games of various types and I work with educational technology in a middle school.  This means I often have very excited students (usually boys) telling me their dreams of making computer games.  

On one hand I love their passion and I try to encourage them.  I have used it at times to motivate some otherwise very unmotivated students.

At the same time, I am wary of presenting a false picture of what it takes to make a successful (or even a good) game.  "Making it" with games (like any creative venture) can be frustrating.  I don't take it lightly when dealing with their hopes and dreams along with the very real possibility of failure.

I don't always have the chance to teach the class or guide all the aspects of the game design lessons when I'm supporting the classroom teacher.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I'm just in the room and working with the students.  From my experience as a game designer and my time with these students, though, here are the top 8 things I always emphasize in game design lessons.

1)  Don't think about money.  Don't even think you could live off any game you make.  Whether a card game, board game or computer game, you'll most likely invest hours of time and make no money at all.  Most people who make games do not make enough to live off them.  That's reality.

I've made a couple party games that have sold all over the world and I made very little money at it.  Most of my friends who have made games, some a lot more successful than mine, still keep their day jobs.  I make it a personal goal to never talk about the money.

2)  Approach it as a hobby and think about the people who will enjoy your game.  If you have fun with it and are grateful when you see others enjoy your work that is a great reward.  Remember that your work can inspire others, make someone smile or bring good friends together.  Those are great things and if you enjoy doing it, keep doing it.

In fact, I'd even go so far as to say if you're good at it, you should do it.  Sometimes when I wanted to give up on a game I'd push through simply because I felt a responsibility to see that idea go as far as it possibly could.

3)  Game design is work.  It seems like you'd get to play all day, but there are plenty of parts to the process that you won't enjoy.  They won't seem fun.

If we're talking computer games, there is a lot of work up front before you'll even be able to play a game of any complexity.  Learning to program is not easy.  Some applications make it easier than it used to be, but if you really want to build a game from the ground up it's going to require hours of learning, programming and testing.

I have programmed for years and just my simple Flash game, Pegged, about made my head explode when I tried to do the scoring piece.  Seriously, I had to get away from all people and noise, staring at my notes until it hurt.  No one gets that until they've seen it, but trust me.  It takes work.

4)  Know the difference between a dream and a wish...and make sure you're following a dream.  This applies to a lot more than game design, but it's good to throw this in.

When we wish for things we think about the end result--maybe we think about it too much--and we would love to somehow get to that without any real work.  We know we really want that end result.  It would be great and we'd be so happy to see it come true.  But it's a wish because it's a fantasy.  The end doesn't happen without the work.

To me, a dream is more realistic and worth working for.  Maybe some would call this a goal or a plan, and those calculated terms can comes into play, but I like to call it a dream.  It still involves the heart.  It's great to dream, but work toward the dream.  

I always say girls wish that One Direction would stop by their house when they're in town.  Boys wish they could make a living making computer games.  Both are about as unlikely.  Dream, but live in the real world!

5)  It is good to play many games, but do it with design in mind.  The fun part of the hobby of game design is that the "research" can be playing games.  I try to play as many as I can.

When you play, though, don't get so caught up in the playing that you forget about why you're taking the time to do it.  Learn what works and what doesn't.  Watch how the game affects others.  Think about what you understand and what you don't.  Make sure you know what makes something fun.  

Along with this, read about as many games as you can too.  Read reviews of good and bad games that you probably won't be able to play.  Read the rules or details of games from genres or styles you don't like.  Even though you don't actually play them, you'll still learn a ton.  Know what people have done and try to find the areas that are yet unexplored.

6)  Read articles and watch videos about game designers and the design process.  Austin Kleon, in his book Steal Like an Artist, says we do this not to get their ideas, but to get the thinking behind their ideas.

Look into the people who make your favorite games and figure out what makes them tick.  Read interviews about people who made successful games you don't really like.  What led to the decisions that resulted in those games?

When you read their stories you should get a better idea of what I meant about all the work that goes into it.  You will almost never hear a designer say that a game just fell in place.

7)  Record all your ideas for games.  You'll never be able to make them all and many of the ones you try to make won't really work.  Still, every idea is worth keeping because:

  • In any art you should form the habit of getting and recording as many ideas as possible.
  • It very well can be useful in another way at another time.

Watch my video on how to make games if you're interested in hearing more about keeping a game idea notebook.  (There are a few other good tips in that two part series as well!)

8)  Keep producing while the others play.  Never just play.  This might sound a lot like tip #5 above, but it encompasses all your research, play and work on game design.

If you do the things listed above, you'll be working on your craft even when it feels like you're having some fun.  You'll be getting better every day while others are playing and that's a huge edge.  


Links to resources

I usually make board and card games, so I am mostly familiar with those resources.  Here are a few starting points based on the steps above and some are related to computer games as well.

  • Designer interviews at Fair Play Games - I interviewed a lot of board game designers several years ago.  Their tips on design can still be useful.
  • Tips for Success from Dominic Crapuchettes - Dominic is the most successful game designer that I know personally.  He worked hard to bring his dreams to life and he's enjoying the rewards.  
  • Tom Vasel's game designer interviews - Tom interviewed many game designers over the years.  Here they are compiled on the Boardgame Geek website.
  • The Boardgame Geek - Speaking of this site, it's a great place to learn about tons of games (good and bad) throughout the ages.  They have subsections of the site devoted to video games and role playing games too.
  • Inspiring Creativity - Here's a post I wrote in 2012 about a friend of mine who creates iOS games.  Be sure to read Kory's post about how he made Blockhouse.  It's a great example of the work that goes into even a "simple" game.
  • Meeting with experts - Last school year two of my designer friends met with some of my students in a Google Hangout.  I wrote about that experience and some of their tips in this post.
  • My posts on game design - This is not the most organized way to find the information, but the link will take you to all the posts tagged "computer game programming" from this blog.  
  • Making What's It to Ya? - Here's my fairly detailed account of how one of my most popular games became an idea in my head and went around the world.  Here's the brief story as a video.
  • How to Make Games - I linked to this above, but wanted to put it here two.  Part 1 and Part 2 of this presentation can be found on YouTube.  They haven't been very popular, but I gave away some gems in there, in my opinion!

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